Queer History: The Losses that Bind Us

Summer Puente

During week one of rehearsals, my most influential teacher and mentor
from my youth came out to me as having AIDS. The exchange I had with him
shaped the way I read Laramie and the way I was able to engage in class.
I could feel myself becoming more withdrawn—hearing about hate crimes
and the affects of AIDS first hand and from someone you love is not
something that many students at Duke deal with, or at least not something
that is discussed.

Last weekend I had the wonderful privilege of
attending a conference for queer students in the Ivy League (I got
special permission to attend) and I heard wonderful talks and attended
workshops from folks who have been fighting what I like to call “the
good fight” since the Civil Rights Movement. Once again, I heard
stories of great loss, and it was heartbreaking to accept that we can
never listen to the tales of our predecessors, who have been killed by
AIDS and hate.

I feel fortunate that while it may be a long time before
we learn the stories of the trans people of color, or the queer sex
workers, or the voiceless youth in something as popular as The Laramie
Project, that we at least have this as a starting point. The
accessibility of Laramie is something that we’ve discussed amongst
ourselves. It is a wonderful tool to bring serious issues into high
schools, to generate discussion and make people of all ages think.

But if I can be brutally honest, underneath all the quietness in class and
lack of self-confidence, I am a politically charged and very angry queer
woman. As Naomi mentioned in her blog post, I often find myself with my
mind blown. Not just after the wonderful opportunity to hear Maude
Mitchell speak and perform, and not just after Angels in America and
speaking with their cast, but also after each and every rehearsal. Acting
is most certainly a growth edge for me and I am awed by the cast and
crew. It is immensely satisfying to drive my anger into my characters.
While I am still learning how to shape and craft my emotions into
characters who aren’t just furious or boring, I leave each night
feeling the great privilege as first a Laramie cast member and second as
a Duke student.

Perhaps this is the morbid way I see the world, but we
must remember that it is through a death that we are meeting one another,
the death of a queer youth with AIDS. Historically, this person’s story
never should have been told but through this loss, we are bound closer

One thought on “Queer History: The Losses that Bind Us

  1. Summer,

    For some reason, your post has got me thinking about poetry. One poem in particular that I found while doing dissertation research for a chapter on Brandon Teena. “I wish i looked like Matthew Shepard” was posted/written in 1998 by TransMan and activist Yosenio Lewis. In giving a short litany of the other brutal murders happening around the same time, I thought it spoke to the unfortunate hierarchy of victimhood that elevates some crimes against LGBTQ folks as “newsworthy” or “notable” over others that go unremarked though not unmourned. I love the way Lewis ends the piece by reminding us, as you say, of the “losses that bind.”

    “I wish i looked like matthew shepard
    I heard rita hester say
    Because maybe then my neighbors would have helped me as a screamed for my life, as I called out for help from someone, anyone–as this man stabbed my life away

    I wish I looked like matthew shepard
    I heard rita hester say
    Because maybe then the boston media that reported my death would have focused more on the brutal way that I died and on seeking justice for me, rather than on describing me as “a man who wore women’s clothes.”

    I wished I looked like matthew shepard
    I heard chanel chandler say
    Because maybe then my father would have cried for his child, instead of telling the fresno newspaper that he had not talked to me in years because he didnít approve of my lifestyle. This was not a lifestyle–this was my life!

    I wished I looked like matthew shepard
    I heard lynn vines say
    Because maybe then I would have been allowed to go into the neighborhood where my cousin lived and which was to become my home without being beaten almost to death by a group who didnít want “no faggot drag queen bitches walking through our neigborhood.”

    I wished I looked like matthew shepard
    I heard tyra hunter say
    Because maybe then I would have received proper medical care after a car accident, rather than being called a freak and left to bleed to death by the paramedics.

    I wished I looked like matthew shepard
    I heard tyra hunter say
    Because maybe then there would be no way the paramedics and the doctors could state that the derogatory comments they made about me “didn’t matter” because I was unconscious.

    I wished I looked like matthew shepard
    I heard chanel pickett say
    Because maybe then the man who killed me in a most horrible way would have been convicted of murder, instead of assault.

    I wished I looked like matthew shepard
    I heard all of them say
    Because maybe then none of the people who robbed us of our lives or our dignity or sense of humanity would be able to use the bullshit “homosexual panic” defense to justify their evil

    I wished I looked like matthew shepard
    I heard them all say
    Because maybe then the world would have noticed us

    I wished I looked like matthew shepard
    I heard brandon teena say
    Because maybe then I would have been believed by law enforcement when I reported my rape, instead of being verbally raped by the sheriff.

    I wished I looked like matthew shepard
    I heard brandon teena say
    Because then–oh, wait–I did look like matthew shepard–small, cute, appealing
    And I was murdered too
    Gee, I wonder why no one wanted to make me time magazine’s “man of the year”

    I wish I was still alive
    I heard matthew shepard say”

    I also wanted to share a snippet from “Waste Not,” a poem by Joan Larkin. The piece was actually written in 1997 but was included in an 1999 anthology of poems titled *Blood & Tears: Poems for Matthew Shepard* edited by Scott Gibson. I can see why Larkin’s piece was used because it illustrates the double-edged sword of martyrdom, which can ignite the fire of activism but can also seem reductive and spectacularizing.

    “We’re using every bit of your death.
    We’re making a vise of your mouth’s clenching and loosening,
    an engine of your labored breathing,
    a furnace of your wide-open eyes.

    We’ve reduced you to stock, fed you to the crowd,
    banked the pearl of your last anger,
    stored the honey of your last smile.

    Nothing’s left in your mirror,
    nothing’s floating on your high ceiling.
    We’re combing pockets, turning sleeves,
    shaking out bone and ash,
    stripping you down to desire.”

    It is the difficult and hopeful work of this play, I think, that through working on it that we find a way to mark loss without despair, vent anger without enacting retribution, and build community without ignoring inequities that exists on many fronts. Lots for one show to carry on its shoulders.


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